Civilian leaders in military uniform are an attraction unmatched by any other clothing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has worn one every Diwali since the India-China confrontation at Doklam in 2017. This year, he spent some time with the Army and addressed troops at Jammu’s Rajouri, not far from the Line of Control. He was dressed in an Army camouflage jacket and a red-banded hat, worn by Colonels and above. He wore an Indian Army emblem as the crownpiece, so to say, in the middle of the red band around the hat. No rank badges were worn.
The Prime Minister’s oratorical skills and the speech delivered in his inimitable style would have touched the hearts of the troops and uplifted their morale. ‘We are lucky to have a leader like Modi’ would perhaps be a lasting memory for those who saw him in flesh and blood. Even for those who would see it on video, and especially for the millions of his supporters across the world, it would have had a similar effect.
Seeking popularity is, understandably, the default posture of democratic leaders. Wearing the military uniform gives an additional edge in terms of projecting an image of a strong leader. In a world that is adrift in the waters of geopolitical tensions at the global and regional levels, other leaders have reached for the military uniform to buttress their popularity by being seen as epitomising the strength that can defend a nation against security threats.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, during his 20-year rule, has been seen in nearly all military uniforms of the armed forces. Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Xi Jinping in China predates Modi’s advent into the list. Putin, Erdogan and Xi, unlike, Modi are all heads of States. All their countries are passing through a challenging phase in their geopolitical journey. Historically, civilians wearing military uniform during times of war is an ancient tradition, because the monarch embodied both the civil and military constituents of the State.
According to India’s constitutional order, the armed force of the country owes its loyalty to the President of India, who is its Commander-in-Chief. It is also, in the name of the President, who symbolises the Head of State, that the government headed by the prime minister carries out its functions. This is unlike China, where the armed forces owe their loyalty to the Communist Party. The two hierarchies are vastly different. There are reasons therefore to question the practice that has been adopted by PM Modi.
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When a PM wears the uniform
Legally, there appears to be no serious bar on the prime minister donning a military uniform. The matter of wearing uniforms comes under Indian Penal Code 171: “Wearing garb or carrying token used by public servant with fraudulent intent.—Whoever, not belonging to a certain class of public servants, wears any garb or carries any token resembling any garb or token used by that class of public servants, with the intention that it may be believed, or with the knowledge that it is likely to be believed, that he belongs to that class of public servants, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees, or with both.” It is amply clear that anyone can wear the uniform as long as it is not utilised to deceive. It is also under this provision that wearing combat dress is prohibited by local orders in areas where terrorists tend to deceive by posing as soldiers. Terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir often use this ruse.
However, when the Indian prime minister wears a military uniform, the issue need not be legal in nature. Then it is about political ethics in a democracy. Constitutionally, only the President of India can embody both the civilian and military leadership in one person. When a popular prime minister like Modi wears a military uniform, apart from the strongman image, there is a subliminal suggestion that the nation must all emulate the uniform and be ready to fight for the country. Such a sentiment was expressed by two of friends who remarked, ‘After seeing the video [Modi’s], we wanted to join the Army’. This is a nationalist sentiment that, in the long run, can do both good and bad for the country.
The good comes from the fact that a nation under security threat requires the full support of its citizens. The bad is the potential militarising of civilian society. Militarisation is the phenomenon when citizens perceive military solutions as the prime methodology to resolve external and internal security threats. Primacy is then logically granted to the use of force and the resultant battle is normally painted as an ideological one. An ideology, especially of religious nature, can give rise to emotive issues that provide vast scope for leaders to enlarge their popularity.
The India-Pakistan relationship dynamic is currently in such an emotive context. On the other side, in public imagination, the India-China relationship is viewed as a territorial dispute. It, therefore, does not carry the same political leverage that Modi’s image in uniform seemingly signals – that he is the real boss of the armed forces. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s statement after the 2016 surgical strikes referring to the Indian Army as ‘Modi ki Sena’ is illustrative. Overall, Pakistan has emerged as a staple diet for electoral success.
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Keeping the focus on India’s priorities
Militarisation of any society is always a subtle process that creeps into the body politic and feeds on enmity of the other. It is played out in the minds of citizens. Images of a prime minister in uniform sustains the belief that violence or its threat is the ultimate arbiter of political disputes. Political science calls it realism. But in the Indian context, where all adversaries are nuclear powers, the jury is still out on whether war as an instrument of statecraft can be utilised for achieving favourable political outcomes.
India’s focus on national security must be to safeguard its territory and protect against any vector that impedes its progress in terms of poverty alleviation, illiteracy, and health. Militarisation can distort the prioritisation of scarce resources even as it may help to strengthen the political party in power. There is also no dearth of young Indians who are willing to fight for the country, for unlike China, they will not be fighting for the party in power.
Nationalism is the oxygen of popular leaders, especially when the world order seems to be in disarray. But it must not be allowed to distract the nation from its primary goals. The PM sticking to his non-military appearance should definitely aid and assist in achieving our national goals sans taking recourse to avoidable distractions.
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat; and former Member, Executive Council, IDSA. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.